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Mark Bramfitt, who manages energy reduction programmes for the high-tech sector at Pacific Gas and Electric, has a great advantage. He is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, where naturally cool weather could help cut electricity costs. But Bramfitt knows that most datacentres are walled off from green alternatives.

"Here we are on the coast of California, and today it is 55 degrees and raining -- and all the datacentres I can see in my area here are running their chiller plants," Bramfitt says.

Pacific Gas and Electric estimates that the datacentres in its service area use as much as 500 megawatts (MW) of power a year. With power reduction efforts, such as cooling systems that draw in outside air instead of using chillers, energy use could be cut by as much as half, says Bramfitt.

But datacentre operators fear switching from a chiller to "free cooling", says Kevin O'Brien, executive vice president at Structure Tone, a datacentre construction services firm in New York. Free cooling is not the same as opening a window, he says. The outside air may still have to be regulated for moisture, for instance.

And when a system switches between free-cooling and chiller modes, there is an increased risk of a failure, he says.

O'Brien told delegates at the AFCOM Data Centre World conference in Las Vegas that IT managers needed to be more aggressive about reducing power consumption and considering alternatives. "We need to police ourselves [and define] what is the green data centre... before the government tells us what it's going to be," he said.

Mark Wood, director of infrastructure management at Highmark, says environmental issues are high on his list of concerns. He asks his vendors whether they are compliant with regulations such as the EU's Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances. The directive, which took effect last year, restricts waste from electronics and bars the import of lead, mercury and cadmium in electronic components.

Wood is virtualising his environment, with the goal of reducing his 500 physical servers by half. He also asks vendors about the energy consumption of their products.

"Our kids are being challenged with all of this -- we're leaving our legacy," says Wood.

Incentives for change

Pacific Gas and Electric is offering incentives to get datacentres to cut power consumption. In November, the company said it would offer up to £2m-worth of electricity rebates to companies that cut the number of physical servers they use and move to virtualisation. A datacentre that requires less energy reduces the need for the energy firm to purchase extra power during peak demands -- power that may not come from clean energy sources.

Bramfitt says he has received about three dozen applications from companies to participate in the incentive programme. Some use just a few servers, while others use up to 6,000. Bramfitt is shooting for an initial power savings of 4 to 5MW annually.

365 Main is among the companies participating in Pacific’s Critical Peak Pricing programme, which is designed to reduce energy demand. The San Francisco-based datacentre operator has taken part in other Pacific power reduction programmes as well. It has installed controls that automatically turn off lights, and it uses variable-frequency drives on air conditioning motors to incrementally control power usage.

But the major savings have come from a change in 365 Main's methodology for testing its 10 continuous power generators, says Miles Kelly, the company's vice-president of marketing. It cut its power costs between May and October 2006 by $70,000 (£35,000) and reduced its 10MW load by about 1MW, Kelly says. The company also conducts its monthly, weeklong test during periods when Pacific expects high energy demand because of the weather, he says.

With its old methodology, 365 Main sent all the energy produced by a generator to a load bank. The new system lets the company recycle some of the power it uses internally, thereby reducing its demand for electricity from the utility.